Art in the Arctic:
A journey to the arctic circle
In October, Jillian McDonald, co-chair and professor of Art, sailed through international waters, ten degrees from the North Pole, aboard Antigua, a Dutch-owned Barquentine Tall Ship which has been running regular arctic expeditions since 2008. She was part of an expedition with The Arctic Circle, an international artist residency program which supports work that intersects science, architecture, education, and activism. She and a number of artists and scientists from around the globe spent their nights sailing in and out of fjords, and their days traversing the unforgiving and dangerous landscape of the island of Svalbard, off the coast of Norway. McDonald explored the breathtaking landscapes to shoot footage for a new video piece titled Freeze, and shared her frigid workspace with the polar bears indigenous to the region. McDonald told us about the once-in-a-lifetime experience, and shared photos from her trip.
What motivated you to go on this excursion?
An artist’s residency is an opportunity to go somewhere where you don't live and don't normally work, without any distractions of home. A lot of artists go to be able to focus on their projects. In my case, these isolated places suit my work perfectly, which is about landscape and the huntedness of nature. This was an extreme example of a pristine northern landscape. It's been a dream residency of mine for a long time and I finally had the opportunity to go.
What were the living conditions?
We traveled and lived on a sailboat with 16 sails. There were 28 artists and writers; one science historian; a crew of three; five kitchen, cleaning and maintenance staff; and four guides. That’s something like 40 people on a boat, living together for two and a half weeks. We slept in tiny shared cabins and had a shared dining/working space. It was very cozy…and rather claustrophobic. We spent a lot of time on deck, and every day we would go to land.
Photo credit: Hannah Scott
What did you do on land?
My project is video-based so I spent most of my time filming. I intended to create a video involving multiple cameras; an underwater camera; a drone camera; and land cameras, but because of the ecologically fragile situation, I couldn't use all of them and my project changed. One day while I was busy filming, the other artists collected bags and bags of plastic and trash. There is an agreement amongst the boats that travel in the area to spend a certain amount of time collecting waste. It was heartbreaking to see the incredible amounts of things that don’t belong there, like toothbrushes, nets, boots, and sunglasses. We all tried to do our part cleaning up during the trip, one of the artists even used the plastic we collected to create art.
What project were you working on?
It's a video piece called Freeze, which refers to the ice itself, glacial events, frozen time, stopping in one’s tracks, video glitches, and freeze-frame imaging. It features pop-culture characters associated with the north; Elsa from Frozen, Santa Clause, the Abominable Snowman, plus some other characters like clowns. The idea I’m trying to illustrate is that 'the party is over' as far as the northern landscape goes; a metaphorical suggestion of the ecological holocaust. It’s tragic, and possibly a bit humorous. Humor-tragedy, horror, and science fiction are all interests of mine. The landscape was, of course, stunningly beautiful, but also very ominous and quite terrifying. I hope to communicate some of the remoteness and coldness while adding a little absurdity to the majesty of the landscape.
Did you feel isolated?
It was isolation in extreme. The only people we encountered for three weeks were each other. No other humans. But at the same time, there was not a moment alone. I’m used to having time to process my thoughts; even living in New York City we have moments alone, but there were none.
What was the scariest part?
Being in a place like that, you have thoughts about being stuck there—what would you do? The place is full of history of failed expeditions and mining communities that perished. Time went by very slowly, and I experienced some level of personal fear while I was there. I felt very far away from home, and as a single parent with a young child, it was not easy. It was a relatively short trip but the location made it feel quite prolonged.
Did fear influence your work?
Absolutely. I used to read horror stories as a teenager, but never watched the movies, as I found them quite terrifying and haunting. After college, I researched horror film theory to discover why people are drawn to horror as a source of entertainment. I quickly realized I needed to actually watch it to fully experience it. There are so many depths to mine in terms of human fear and primal instinct—the things horror filmmakers try to tap into in their audience. The fear of being lost or trapped in such an unforgiving landscape relates very closely to the history of this place and it’s failed expeditions. There was an omnipresent feeling of danger and fear, especially with the constant threat of polar bears.
Did you encounter any polar bears?
We saw one. It was an incredibly moving experience. One of the guides spotted it from the deck of the boat. They called us on deck and we were completely silent not to scare it away. For more than an hour the boat slowly approached land, nobody moved a muscle or spoke. We had tears in our eyes to see this creature out there in the wild. We got as close as we could, it turned and looked at us, then kept ambling along. If we were going to experience a polar bear, I’m very glad it was in that way.
Photo credit: Mita Mahato
When will you have a finished project?
I will be in the editing process for at least a year. I’m working on other projects at the same time, and I’m going to be incorporating 3D animation with live video—something that is brand new to me. I’ll be mixing live video with animation and green screen work, which I expect to be quite labor intensive.